Roughly two weeks ago, 12 Americans, a Canadian, and a Brit arrived in a new country. They represented different religions, world views, and occupations. With ages spanning a range of 60 years, they would converge on a little-known village in Nicaragua called Las Peñitas. Just over a week later, both the village and the 14 who were once strangers were changed in one way or another forever.
They say a true understanding of history requires time and context. Meaning, it is nearly impossible to see or comprehend the impact of a change until there is enough distance from it to see it with a broader perspective. This is our story from the perspective of one of those 14.
We all arrived with the best of intentions — aware of our differences, and wanting to ensure inclusion was evident. At first it was overt, asking each for input and all willing to make concessions to show support for the new strangers in our lives. We didn’t know that by the end, there would be no effort required. That, in a way, 14 would become an extended family, with a common understanding and respect for the other. Yet, when that first day of work began, it would have been difficult to predict that outcome with any confidence.
My journey began at the school, where the site was dirt, large boulders, and debris. Our first task would be to remove the several hundred pound boulders. We would try different techniques. Dig with shovels, use pry bars, and get in each others way quite a bit. About thirty minutes later, after several failures, we achieved our first goal and celebrated with high fives. Though the celebration was short-lived as shovels and pick axes were distributed to build a trench that would be two feet wide, a foot and half deep, and roughly 35 linear feet. No small task when considering the make up of the ground. The minority of which was actual dirt, occupied primarily by dense clay and rock. This would make up the majority of the remainder of our day. Our first day. The get to know each other day. The light day. It would end an hour and half later than expected, with just 20 minutes of daylight remaining and would finish with a fully poured concrete foundation. While all of this was happening, the remainder of our team was laying block, mixing concrete and sifting in 90 degree heat to build a home roughly 100 yards away. A humble description of the work our group wouldn’t come to understand until the following day.
Each of the following days would have team members rotating to different sites, swapping for fresh legs and giving others an opportunity to share a moment in the shade. Stories would be exchanged, sometimes one to one, others in small groups. With each story, each collaborative task bringing us just a little closer. In between the work, we would share meals with our extended Nicaraguan family who accepted us into their home. We would learn about the Nicaraguan revolution. Not as a historical event, but as personal accounts. A boy pulled from school at 14 to fight against those he now calls friends. A boy who would become a man through incredible adversity, tumble into despair only to emerge as a man who provides for his community every day with a smile and a Coke. This was no longer some distant country on a map. It was the home of Danilo, Alberto, Ricardo, Lorraina, Carlos, Santos, Benito, Veronique, Maria, Perla and so many more. All who grow up in a different world than the 14 who arrived, but all shared the same common goal: Leave the world a little better than they found it.
This was no longer some distant country on a map. It was the home of Danilo, Alberto, Ricardo, Lorraina, Carlos, Santos, Benito, Veronique, Maria, Perla and so many more. All who grow up in a different world than the 14 who arrived, but all shared the same common goal: Leave the world a little better than they found it.
Which brings me to the key ingredient of any great team, a great leader. There is a term that has begun to pick up popularity in the corporate world, and is quickly becoming the most recruited skill, but the most difficult to obtain. The difficulty is that it is not only rare, but it cannot be seen on a resume. That term is Servant Leadership. A servant leader is one who serves the team first. Not the boss, and not even the customer. It is a working leader with no task being beneath him or her. She leads with influence, and reserves her authority only for safety or moments of crisis. She spends this authority wisely knowing that no one would challenge it when used so sparingly. Instead, she removes obstacles, gives a heavy bucket a little extra lift, and casually breaks up a task with conversation when a member needs a break but won’t ask for it. She has the unique ability to conduct the orchestra while playing percussion, setting the tempo, and allowing the orchestra to find the crescendo. With each eloquent piece of music forming organically, and changing shape as it develops. The actual outcome is undefined, unknown, and left to the symbiotic forces of the team. And what few realize as they are developing the outcome, is that it can be terrifying at times for the leader. The ambiguity, external forces, and knowing while the glory of success is shared by all, the risk of failure sits on the shoulders of one. It is both courageous and selfless. This team experienced the incredible good fortune of having that leader, and it will shape my own leadership for years to come.
A servant leader is one who serves the team first. Not the boss, and not even the customer. It is a working leader with no task being beneath him or her.
Back to 14 Nicas and one more term that received some attention this week. Gestaltism, which means the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. As I look back over the week, my belief in this phenomena is reinforced more than ever before. Hundreds of buckets of gravel, sand, concrete and mortar were hoisted. Blocks moved, staged, and placed in just the right place. Scaffolding built, lumber transferred, and mortar filled. Every single one of these tasks alone were essential. Down to the last block, bucket and trowel. But in the end, it was a home and a school annex. In time, no one will focus on any of the parts. They will see a family in a home, and children learning and enjoying a meal in school. And through all of that, there was a third thing built. It cannot be seen, it cannot be touched, but it is as real as any structure. It is the 14 Nicas and the relationship we have developed. The memories made, the lessons we’ve learned, the stories we shared. There were tears, sweat, some blood, and so much laughter my greatest injury is probably in my abs.
You each have my unending gratitude. Each and every one of you has changed my perspective in some way or another, and together you have made a meaningful impact on my life. From the bottom of my heart, thank you.
(Dedicated to Liz Bellantoni, a true servant leader, and to The Fuller Center for the great work they do around the world.)
Scott Brand is Senior Vice President in charge of North American Operations for Nielsen, an S&P 500 company.